From the Kitchen to the Congress: A Child Nutrition Reauthorization Blog

SNA Legislative Action Conference - Day One

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On February 28, 2009, the 37th annual School Nutrition Association Legislative Action Conference (LAC) unofficially kicked off with two pre-conference education sessions on lobbying state legislatures and the financial challenges of school nutrition today, along with several meetings. We will be blogging live from the conference over the next few days until the gathering closes on Wednesday, March 4, 2009. To get us started - here is a quick preview of the upcoming meeting:

  • Over 695 people have registered thus far, and counting. The vast majority are school nutrition directors from almost every state. They represent large, medium and small school districts, located in urban, suburban and rural parts of the country.
  • They are all gathering in Washington, DC, because of three central reasons: school nutrition programs are in dire need of adequate financial support and Congress can help provide that; consistent nutrition standards must be adopted for all foods and beverages available in schools; and finally because this year Congress will reauthorize the federal child nutrition programs.
  • Attendees are excited to hear from the many speakers scheduled including: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Senator Bob Casey (D-Penn.) and Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) Political commentator Ronald Brownstein will also speak, as will nutrition experts Dr. Keith Ayoob, Dr. Brian Wansink, and Dr. Virginia Stallings.
  • On Tuesday, school nutrition professionals will take to Capitol Hill - advocating for school nutrition funding and nutrition standards.
  • Immediately following the conference on Wednesday morning at the new time of 9:30 AM, SNA president Dr. Katie Wilson will be testifying before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee at a hearing entitled "Improving Nutrition for America's Children in Difficult Economic Times."

It will be a jam packed four days and we will try to cover it all right here.  Stay tuned and join in by posting your thoughts below!


For those Keeping Score - Over 30 Issues and Growing

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We are almost a third of the way into 2009, and more and more priorities and 'wish lists' are appearing for child nutrition reauthorization. We thought we would try to list them all here - or at least a good number of them. Space won’t allow us to go into much detail but this will give you a sense of the scope and variety of topics being discussed. These are the issues and policy agendas of a wide variety of groups that would like to see changes made to the National School Lunch Program and School Breakfast Program this year through the reauthorization process.
We will start with SNA: the legislative issue paper has already been discussed on the blog (funding and nutrition standards stand out as the two big issues), but the issue paper addendum with a variety of other issues is still in development.  The addendum, which will be vetted by SNA’s Public Policy and Legislation Committee and approved by the SNA Board of Directors, will categorize and prioritize issues in addition to those outlined in the 2009 Legislative Issue Paper.
SNA also works closely with two large coalitions. The first, the Child Nutrition Forum, has reauthorization goals around improving access to nutritious foods in schools, child care centers and homes, in afterschool programs, on weekends, during the summer, and in the home; enhancing the nutritional environment to promote healthy eating habits for women and children (includes WIC); and modernizing and streamlining program operations to improve program integrity and efficiency. Read the complete statement of principles here.
SNA also is active in the National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity, with key priorities on funding, nutrition standards, wellness policies, and nutrition education. Read the full list through this link.
Among the many issues being advocated for:

  • Setting a minimum price for meals (MLM) and regulating indirect cost allocation (K-12 Foodservice)
  • Formalizing permission for school nutrition directors to offer organic and hormone free milk (Food and Water Watch)
  • Banning processed meats from commodity program/NSLP, reworking the commodity program, nutrition standards (PCRM, Cancer Project)
  • Vegan school meal options (PETA)
  • Nutrition standards, nutrition curriculum, reworking the commodity program and nutrition labeling (Earth Day Network)
  • Organic and locally grown foods, made from scratch meal, for NSLP at $5 per meal (Alice Waters)
  • Access to local foods and gardens for schools, increased reimbursement rates, nutrition education, nutrition standards (Farm to School Network, Community Food Security Coalition)
  • Salad bar in every school (United Fruit and Vegetable Association)
  • School Food Corps of culinary students to work in school nutrition programs (Michael Pollan)
  • Whole grain food promotion
  • Fresh fruit and vegetable promotion
  • Education/Certification Requirement for School Nutrition Directors/Professionals
  • Alternative to Cows’ Milk
  • Local Wellness Policy Evaluation/Enforcement
  • Food Safety Inspection Frequency
  • Food Recall Enhancement and Prevention
  • Training for School Nutrition Professionals
  • Length of Lunch Period and Time of Day
  • Recess Before Lunch
  • Claiming and Eligibility Error, Waste, Fraud, Abuse Prevention
  • Various Fat Levels of Milk
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Increased Reimbursements - An SNA Legislative Priority

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February 19, 2009 -- The headlines say it all.  “School lunch programs in a money crunch.” “School meals costs may go up.” “School lunch program is in the red – and it’s not ketchup.”  While participation is rising, the costs associated with these programs continue to skyrocket.  In the past year, both food and energy costs have widely fluctuated, while labor costs continue to increase.  School nutrition directors must also meet the tastes of increasingly demanding customers.  In many areas, the school nutrition programs are expected to provide students with organic, hormone free, locally grown, or scratch made items. As districts nationwide continue to implement the Dietary Guidelines for Americans with more expensive items such as whole grains, low fat dairy, and fresh fruits and vegetables, school nutrition programs are forced to do much more with much less. 

According to a Fall 2008 study conducted by SNA, it costs school districts approximately $2.92 cents to prepare a school meal.  Currently, school nutrition programs are reimbursed at $2.57 for free meals.  That leaves a gap of about 35 cents that school districts must supplement.  Some states provide additional funding, but that money often falls short.  School nutrition funding is also at risk in some states, where legislators look to cut budgets squeezed by the current economic crisis.  In school districts where paid participation is high, the paid meals help to offset some costs, but many of these programs are still running in the red.

To combat this problem, the School Nutrition Association is asking for a 35 cent increase in the reimbursement rate for all school meals.  SNA is also calling on Congress to readjust the reimbursement rates for the other meal categories to better reflect the true cost of preparing a meal.  School nutrition programs are required to be financially self-sufficient.  As food prices continue to rise and families struggle to pay for school meals, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for school nutrition programs to stay in the black.

Many pundits have asked: if school nutrition programs are getting so expensive to operate, why not scrap the program and let students / parents pack their own lunch? These commentators miss the purpose of these programs. Approximately 19 million children are served either free or reduced price meals each day.  These are children living in poverty, with both parents working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  A school lunch may be the only nutritious meal of the day they eat.  Additionally, all students who participate in the school nutrition programs receive a well balanced, healthy meal that must meet federal nutrition guidelines.  Lunches brought from home do not have to meet standards and independent studies show that they often lack nutritional quality. 

Therefore, SNA has designated increasing reimbursement rates as the top issue on the 2009 Legislative Issue Paper.  How will increased reimbursement rates help your school nutrition program?   Please share your thoughts in the comments section of this entry.

Child Nutrition Forum Meets, Strategy Takes Shape

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February 12, 2009 - Yesterday a meeting of the child nutrition Reauthorization forum was held at the offices of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, DC. The forum is co-chaired by SNA and the Food Research and Action Center and includes over one hundred anti-hunger, religious, education, medical, nutrition, direct service, school food, preschool and child care, union, children, after school, industry and agricultural groups representing over 20 million members in all. These organizations have joined together again in 2009 to advocate on behalf of the child nutrition programs.

The meeting yesterday included about 20 groups in person and on the phone from around the country. Discussions focused on the budget process and a multi pronged strategy for reaching out to the Obama Administration and Budget Committee members in the House and Senate. The Administration is expected to present an outline of the upcoming fiscal year budget on February 24, 2009.

The critical question right now is how much money to ask Congressional and Administration leaders to set aside for the child nutrition reauthorization bill. In order to fund the key priorities outlined in the Forum's Statement of Principles (see blog post from Feb. 3, 2009, below for more info) it is estimated that $4 billion per year should be set aside, over five years. The challenge becomes making the case for this amount of funding. One way SNA members can help is to sign on to the Statement of Principles. The more groups - especially grassroots groups like food banks and school nutrition chapters at the local level - that sign on to the Principles, the better the odds of securing the funding necessary to achieve a meaningful and significant child nutrition reauthorization. Look in the very near future as well for sample letters to the editor and other tools to bring the need for funding to the public.

What can you do right now?

Sign your group on to the Child Nutrition Forum Statement of Principles now - and build the momentum and the movement towards adequately funded child nutrition programs. Click here. 

Take a few minutes and fill out the form here to provide your personal anecdotes and experiences on why adequate school nutrition funding is needed in your school district and nutrition program: Click here. 

Please post a comment below to share how you are organizing within your state, chapter or community to build support for school nutrition funding. We have heard of great ideas and actions happening already in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. Who else?   

Equipment Needed

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One of the items school nutrition professionals identified as a needed imporvement to the school nutrition programs through child nutrition reauthorization this year is funding for school foodservice equipment, whether to purchase new equipment or to maintain and repiar existing equipment. In response to the need, a school foodservice equipment grant program is being debated as part of the Senate econimc recovery and stimulus plan. The proposal calls for a grant program of $198 million to be made available through states to school district nutrition programs. 

Because several Senators and columnists have questioned the school foodservice equipment grant program as an item that may not belong in the stimulus bill, we thought we'd take a closer look at why such a grant program is needed and what effect it could actually have with regard to job creation and preventing job loss:

  • Nationally, many school districts are waiting to replace aged and outdated foodservice equipment due to lack of funds. In some school districts, the foodservice equipment is approximately 30 to 40 years old.
  • Participation in the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program is rising as the economy worsens.  Despite increased participation, the school nutrition programs still struggle to break even as the average cost of preparing a school meal is $2.90, according to a September 2008 report by the School Nutrition Association while the federal government only reimburses $2.57 per free meal. This leaves nothing to put away in savings as funds for repairing or purchasing needed foodservice equipment that may cost tens of thoudands of dollars.
  • In some parts of the country, school districts must replace certain equipment items, such as deep fryers, with more expensive items such as convection ovens, in order to meet requirements set by state nutrition guidelines and local school wellness policies that prohibit fried foods. No funds are availabel at the state or local level to cover the cost of replacing this equipment.
  • Foodservice equipment manufacturers are facing the prospect of layoffs as commercial foodservice establishments cut back on new equipment purchases. A grant program for school foodservice equipment will generate job creation and prevent layoffs among the many U.S manufacturers of foodservice equipment such as those companies that make commercial ovens, steam tables, serving lines, refrigerators, warewashers, and other much need foodservice equipment.
  • School nutrition programs that are striving to cook more meals from scratch and depend less on processed foods are finding they do not have the funds to purchase refrigerators, convection ovens and prep tables necessary for handling raw produce and other fresh food items.

In the early 1980's Congress eliminated funding for foodservice equipment for schools. Many school districts have not been able to replace their cooking equipment since that time. Whether as part of the stimulus or part of child nutrition reauthorization, Congress can and should take the opportunity now to both boost the demand for these manufactured items while at the same time providing schools with the equipment they need to prepare even more healthful meals in school kitchens.

Take action now tell you Senators that school foodservice equipment funding is imperative.

Sign On to the CN Forum Statement of Principles!

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If you’re a frequent reader of SNA’s weekly policy e-newsletter Tuesday Morning, you’ve probably seen numerous articles requesting your state association to sign on to the Child Nutrition Forum Statement of Principles.  Are you curious to learn more about the CN Forum and why SNA encourages you to sign on to the Statement of Principles?  If so, then read on for answers to your questions!

During Reauthorization years, the School Nutrition Association joins forces with several hundreds of other organizations through the Child Nutrition (CN) Forum.  The CN Forum was founded in the late 1970’s by former Senator George McGovern (D-S.D.), an ardent supporter of the federal food assistance programs, including the child nutrition programs.  Co-chaired by SNA and the Food Research and Action Center, the CN Forum includes a variety of anti-hunger, religious, education, medical, nutrition, direct service, school food, preschool and child care, unions, children, after school, industry and agricultural groups.  These organizations have joined together again in 2009 to advocate on behalf of the child nutrition programs.

The Statement of Principles outlines the goals of the CN Forum.  There are three key issues that the members of the CN Forum are asking Congress to enact legislation that:

  1. Assures and strengthens program access and supports participation by underserved children and communities.
  2. Enhances nutrition quality and provides adequate meal reimbursements; and,
  3. Modernizes technology and simplifies program administration and operation.

To view the detailed statement, please click on the CN Forum Statement of Principles link.

Why is it important for your school district, SNA chapter, or state association to sign on to the Statement?  Individually, each organization is a small voice.  When united, these groups are much louder and therefore, much more effective.  The CN Forum is comprised of many very diverse organizations, ranging from very large groups such as the American Dietetic Association and the American Federation of Teachers to many small national and local organizations including the Afterschool Alliance, Mazon – A Jewish Response to Hunger, the Peoria, Ill. Area Food Bank, and the First Congregational Church of Essex Junction, Vermont.

Please encourage your state association, your school district, even the local civic or religious organization you are a member of, to sign on to the CN Forum Statement of Principles.  United together, we can accomplish great things for our children.